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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, new doubts about the Obama administration’s strategy for fighting the Islamic State, the political divide on key provisions of the Patriot Act and the State Department’s release of emails by former Secretary Hillary Clinton emails.
And now to our look at a full week of news, culminating with the 2016 GOP presidential contenders.
Most of them flocked to the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, meeting in Oklahoma, and among the most prominent themes, national security.
FORMER GOV. RICK PERRY, (R) Texas: It's time for us to have a president who admits what the American people already know. We face a global struggle against radical Islamic terrorists, and we are in the early stages of this struggle.
The great lesson of history for us is that strength and resolve bring peace and order, and weakness and vacillation invite chaos and conflict.
GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R) New Jersey: No wonder nobody around the world is nervous about America anymore. No wonder we're not intimidating our adversaries and they're running around wild in the world, because they know we're not investing in our defense anymore. We need to make or military strong, not to wage war, but to avoid war and to bring peace and stability in the world.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
FORMER SEN. RICK SANTORUM, (R) Pennsylvania: Ladies and gentlemen, we can't have a nominee against Hillary Clinton who sees commander in chief as an entry-level position or on-the-job training. Going into a debate, you don't want to be able to have a candidate that represents the Republican Party whose national security experience is a briefing book.
And with that critique being made, we turn now to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away.
Welcome to you both.
So, with that conversation coming from the Republican contenders, Mark, this is in a week where ISIS, Islamic State, is making some big gains. They took over a key city in Iraq, Ramadi. You're starting to hear criticism of the administration policy toward ISIS, towards what's going on in Iraq.
The president came out this week and said, I have got a strategy, it's working.
What do you think?
I think, Judy, that, politically, just speaking politically right now, for 10 years, from 2006 basically up to today, nine years, that Iraq has been a positive issue for Democrats. They won the Congress in 2006. They nominated the one candidate in the party who had opposed the Iraq war. And opposition to that Iraq War and to President Bush's policy became central in the 2008 campaign.
Mitt Romney had to walk away from his support for it in 2012 and say he wouldn't have supported it. And now, 2015, five years after President Obama announced the withdrawal of combat units from Iraq, keeping a promise that he had made in that 2008 campaign, we see Ramadi fall. We see the Iraqi army in full flight, after all the training, after all the billions of dollars.
And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said they were not driven, the Iraqi army was not driven out of Ramadi. They drove out of Ramadi. They aren't a paper tiger. They're a paper tabby cat.
And that is the reality. And ISIS is on the move. ISIS is on the offensive. And I think, politically speaking, beyond the ethics and the morals, that Democrats now are starting to feel themselves on the defensive on this issue, and Republicans are starting to feel free of what had been an enormous burden.
Sounds like he thinks it's not working.
Well, this was a serious enemy victor in this war. The capital of Anbar, they control 60 percent of that province, advances in Syria at the same time.
This is good for terrorist propaganda and recruitment. And there was an unnamed member of the administration that said they were shocked by what happened here. And it was shocking to hear President Obama's former secretary of defense, Robert Gates, say, we don't have a strategy at all.
Now, I'm not sure of that. The president did announce a strategy in September, which involved arming and preparing our proxies, including Sunni proxies, that involved aggressive negotiations for a national unity government, that involved, you know, bombing the heck out of ISIS.
The first two of those were not done effectively, not done aggressively. So we could actually start this policy discussion by saying the president could go and enforce his own policy more aggressively in this battle.
So, what about the — but what about — or and what about the critiques you're hearing from Republicans? But, Mark, as you just said, you're hearing it from Democrats, too.
I mean, who has the right answer here?
I don't think anybody has the right answer.
I didn't — I listened to Rick Perry. I listened Rick Santorum, who is basically was contrasting himself with the governors. And it wasn't convincing. Chris Christie, who has his own problems in New Jersey — I mean, it comes down to, what is the action statement?
Rick Perry has said — wants boots on the ground. Other Republicans have said they want boots on the ground, but they don't necessarily have to be American boots. They should be Arab boots.
Now, there are 60 nations in this coalition. I haven't seen people lining up to join this fight. I mean, in a proxy war, you are dependent upon your proxies. And the Iraqis turn out to be not particularly engaged, divided, not unified, not committed the same way.
Judy, how bad is this? When one of the defenses, that the fact that all of the equipment and the weapons that we have given to the Iraqi army, a good portion of them were given up to ISIS — one of the explanations was, don't worry about it too much because they were in such ill repair, because the Iraqis have taken such bad care of them, that they wouldn't be of great use.
This is just really — but there's no action statement. There's nobody saying, I have the answer. Lindsey Graham…
Well, get tough, that's what you're hearing from…
Get tough, get tough, swagger; 10,000 troops, Lindsey Graham wants to put in, Senator Lindsey Graham, who is a potential candidate.
George Pataki said, put in as many as you need, and kill everybody you can and get out. Now, getting out, I think, was the question and it remains the dilemma to this moment.
So, how do you — what is — you said the administration hasn't followed through on what it said its policy is, but who does the administration turn to at this point?
Well, I think there's a lot of questions about their intention in this. The larger problem here is the president have set out a series of statements. He said Assad must go. He said there's a chemical weapons red line. He said we're going to just degrade and destroy ISIS.
And now you read in a stories a debate within the administration, well, maybe they should be contained, maybe we can live with the caliphate.
And so I think there is a real question, what's the president's goal, is he willing to match means with ends? Some of that will involve broader embedding of U.S. forces in our proxies down to the brigade level, which is not true right now. I don't know if that will be decisive, but I think there are measures you can take within the broad strategy of a proxy war where you can be more aggressive. And I think the president is going to need to be.
I will not argue with General Gerson on this.
But I will say that there are 250,000 Iraqi troops. There are, by CIA estimates, up to 31,000 ISIS troops.
And you have full flight. I mean, they won't be engaged. They haven't been engaged. The idea of embedding, of training, and whatever else, I just think we have to confront the fact that this is a disaster. I mean, we can go back to who hit whom first, but the reality was, the president of the United States, 12 years ago, announced that mission was accomplished, that the United States and its allies had prevailed, that the war in Iraq was over.
And, you know, that wasn't the case. And, Judy, anybody who walks around with a flag pin in his lapel now who is running for president or running for Congress and says let's go in and let's kick some tail and let's take some numbers and bomb some people, that takes no courage at all, because it's not their blood they're talking about, and it's not their children's blood.
And, quite frankly, talk is very cheap. And we're going to hear a lot of it in the forthcoming weeks.
Well, you're hearing, Michael, that this is of course — it is connected in a way with the Patriot Act debate. We reported on it earlier. Mike DeBonis of The Washington Post was on the program.
You have a situation where the Republicans are divided, the House and Senate is divided. Do you see a way through this? Is there a clear answer that is going to satisfy both sides?
Well, I doubt that.
And I think it's important to state that Rand Paul is substantively wrong on this issue. The NSA is not looking through people's address books and Visa bills and violating the rights of average citizens. That's not what the NSA does.
And I think that so — I think you have to start by saying that that is not a risk. There are a lot of guarantees built in, courts and others that are looking over the shoulder of the NSA on this. And I think that Paul has earned some real contempt from his fellow senators by using a national security debate as a fund-raising tool related to his broader efforts.
So I think that — I don't know how you split the difference on a debate where there's a substantive difference in what's happening.
How do you see it?
Well, we talk about the lack of consensus compromise.
The House came up with the USA Freedom Act. They passed it with only 88 votes against it, coalition of Democrats and Republicans. This is really — as Mike DeBonis said in his interview with you, Judy, it's a fight between Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell. It really is.
As far as Senator Paul, Russ Feingold was the only vote against the Patriot Act, the senator from Wisconsin, in 2001. Anybody cannot argue that the FISA courts have just been a stamp for…
These are the courts where the government has to go get approval for eavesdropping.
Justice Department also involved in eavesdropping.
There's a real — there's a real — there are real questions and I think real doubts. But I — and I think the USA Freedom Act went a long way toward resolving many of those for people of good faith on both sides.
But I really — to Rand Paul's defense — and I rarely rally to it — he is not the first person in the history of the United States to raise money on a national security issue. I mean, that has been a fairly common practice about — among presidential candidates of my knowledge in the past few years.
Well, one other thing that has come up this week, and we just heard about it today — we reported on it a few minutes ago — at the intersection of politics and national security, Michael, is Hillary Clinton and the e-mails.
We have been hearing about it for some time. A court said this week that they have got to be released. The State Department said, we can't get it done until January. She says — she came out and talked to the press and said, no, they have got to come out.
And they are now starting to come out. And we're seeing she was getting advice on what to do about Benghazi. What are we learning from this? Is she hurt by it? What do you think?
Well, this attempt at transparency comes after the destruction of 30,000 e-mails on a private server that she kept.
And so I think the transparent — the effort at transparency itself is transparent. And so, you know, it's — and also the ties to Sidney Blumenthal in this case raise some questions about judgment. So I think there are a bunch of questions raised here.
The e-mails of Secretary Clinton, Judy, are, not in a moral sense, but in a journalistic sense, like the Nixon tapes. They're the gift that keep on giving.
I mean, they will come out. Editors will look at them. There will be a new story and a new story. And to some degree, to use the proxy answer, the press has become the proxy for the opposition to Hillary Clinton.
You mean because they're asking so many questions.
Yes. With all but respect to Senator Sanders and to Governor O'Malley or former Senator Jim Webb, who is thinking about running, the most formidable adversary she has right now is the press.
And the Clintons' characteristic penchant for secretiveness is part of this narrative. But I will be interested to see everybody's e-mails on the table before this is over. I would like to see Governor Christie's. I would like to see Governor Bush's. I would like to see everybody's e-mails. If we're going to hold her to a standard, I hope we're going to hold everybody to the same standard.
All right, we're going to leave it there.
Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thank you both. Have a good Memorial Day weekend.
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